Why is joint engagement important for communication development?
It has been well-documented that the development of joint attention is impaired in children who have social communication difficulties or autism. It is, in fact, this impairment which distinguishes children with ASD from children who have other developmental delays.
A lack of joint attention in very young children is an early sign of autism as it is a signal that there is a disruption in the motivation to connect socially with others. Since this is a crucial element, I thought I would outline what we mean by Joint Attention as supported by the research undertaken at Hanen.org.
In typically developing children, the ability to shift attention between a person and an object for the purposes of connecting socially or for requesting develops around the same time. However, for children with ASD, these components emerge one at a time and in a linear fashion. Children with ASD usually start with requesting something and later they may learn to share attention for social sharing. (see pattern below as a general guide).
As with typical development, there is variation in the order that these skills emerge but the following patterns of development is commonly seen:
- Reaching, taking adult’s arm/hand or pointing to ask for something — but without looking at the adult
- Gradually alternating looking between person and object of desire
- Then learning to follow the point of another — which is responding to joint attention initiated by another
- Directing attention to share interests — without looking at the adult: pointing to a truck on the road/ helicopter circling above
- Then directing attention to share interest by alternating gaze shift between person and object — here the child is now initiating joint attention.
What is important to note is that in order to fulfil the criteria for true joint attention, the purpose of directing the attention of another person must be social in nature. In other words, it must not be exclusively to obtain a desirable object or event/action. True Joint Attention is seen verbally or non-verbally; we want to share a thought with another person and direct them to something we are interested or excited or spooked by.
For example: we can see an amazing firework display in the distance and we want to quickly direct our friend’s attention to this. In order to do this we might be tugging their sleeve/arm whilst pointing to the display in the distance, and perhaps we might add “wow look over there!” We are doing so simply to share an interest without obtaining anything, we are just being social with each other. So True Joint Attention is not just looking at what we want to have, then look at the person who can get this for us and then point to the item. We can say that this is the precursor to true joint attention, which is purely social in nature.
Because true joint attention is an essential precursor to typical language development, the absence of joint attention in children with ASD contributes to difficulties with language learning. Beuker, K., Rommelse, N., Donders, R. & Buitelaar, J. (2013).
The Hanen programme for Parent Child Interaction teaches parents of children with Social Communication Difficulties step by step how to enable their children to learn to pay attention to an object and the parent at the same time.
We learn how to enable a child to:
- engage take turns
- shift eye gaze between toy and adult
- copy adult’s actions, gestures and then words
- play with toys in different, new ways
- interact and for longer periods of time
- have fun whilst playing
If you would like to know more about the Hanen programme please get in touch. I look forward to exploring the topic with you and help guide you forward if this is something your child is struggling with.
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